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Church in Ukraine struggles with myths and old politics

   
 


Kolya, with masters level education in athletics, provides a sports ministry to children and youth twice a week. He had a vision to rejuvenate dilapidated playground equipment in a local park which had been repeatedly vandalized. With fresh paint and some lumber paid for by Cliff Dueck, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker, Kolya together with a team of helpers removed rust from slides, repaired teeter- totters, fixed benches, and painted swing sets. On the day that the project was completed, about 20 new young people came to join 40 others who were gathered at the church for a youth club meeting and wiener roast. The March 2004 project remains intact. “It was just such an impact in the community,” said Dueck.

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Natasha Dueck (left, in white top) focuses her energy on ministry to women and is active in Sunday school leadership. She also leads three Bible study groups. Periodically the various groups gather for a spontaneous celebration.

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April 5, 2004
by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Christianity and the church have a decades-long record of deep suspicion among the people of Ukraine. This residual wariness leftover from old political ideologies and an affinity for witchcraft persists and frustrates the evangelism efforts of foreign and local Christian church leaders alike.

So says Cliff Dueck. Dueck and his wife Natasha, Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Ukraine, were in Winnipeg recently to talk about where their ministry challenges and hopes lie. Ukraine lives on in the hearts and minds of many Mennonites whose ancestral roots can be traced there.

Biggest among the challenges is trying to forge relationships with distrustful local residents who perpetrate myths and discourage children and youths from attending church related events.

“A fair number of Ukrainians practice magic and children and youth often consider rituals involving the calling of evil spirits an interesting pass time,” reports Dueck. “North Americans often associate these activities with Africa and tribal traditions but there is enough of it in Ukraine to plague the church and its followers.”

Rumours of human sacrifice, orgies, and selling children into slavery are just a few pieces of ghoulish gossip about Christians and the church that have surfaced since Dueck began ministry in Ukraine in 1998. “There’s a group of girls who probably would like to come [to church] but they truly believe that we are trying to woo people into a trust relationship so that we can sell them as slaves to Turkey,” said Dueck.

Dueck tells the story of Vika, a 16 year old who was once a frequent Sunday school attender. Vika’s great-grandmother was a witch and prophesied that when Vika turns 30, she too will become a witch. “This is something that Vika is kind of looking forward to and we’re not,” said Dueck. For a time, Dueck adds, one local resident exerted enough pressure to reduce Sunday school attendance from a high of 45 to just 10 children.

In the political realm, “The lies that were spread [in the old political regime] about the church are very much true and alive in the minds of people,” said Dueck in a presentation to colleagues. He was referring to previous political era when Christians were often sent to prison on false charges.

An additional challenge is the switch to a free market economy. In the old political regime, foreign mission money would help support local pastors – a sort of second job for local church leaders. This eventually morphed into fully salaried local pastors, sponsored by North American dollars.

But perceptions in the West that everything is alright in the wake of Ukraine’s new free market economy has seen foreign mission money begin to dry up. Meanwhile, high unemployment and a devalued Ukrainian currency have combined to consume every waking moment for citizens. If they are not busy earning a living, they are looking for paid work.

“Churches got used to the pastor doing a lot more and being a lot more… they got used to the idea of [Westerners] giving the salary to the pastor. Now it’s a little bit different where not every church or pastor can find a sponsor,” said Dueck.

“If the pastor starts doing less in the church no one will understand why… nobody understands that the pastor actually has a job, [but] he doesn’t have a sponsor,” said Dueck, alluding to a culture of dependence.

Despite the difficulties, Dueck is full of hope for a ministry that takes years to see results. He has already begun to partially realize his vision of developing local, maturing Christians. What he needs most now is to spend time discerning and selecting leaders with immediate potential, and then to find ways to shift the local culture to a point where congregations see value in supporting their pastors.

“One of the biggest things that they [local leaders] do is they just work and work and work and work and when they’re done they’re tired, and I say now spend an extra 15 hours a week with me. What can I do to help [them] free up some more time?”

Dueck estimates a cost of about $200 to support an unmarried local church leader, and about $500 per month for a developing leader with a family, averaged over a three year term – plus start up costs and some basic overhead expenses. “There have been a few churches who have tried to pay for their own pastors, give them salaries. But it’s very difficult, at least [right] now,” Dueck adds.

And there is hope in young people. Sveta’s Grandmother Lidia came from Kazakhstan because her health was failing. The young granddaughter began reading bedtime stories to her ageing Grandma from Bible story books given to the family by Dueck. Then Sveta began quizzing her Grandmas’ recall of the stories. Dueck’s eyes light up at this point in the story. “And so her Grandma says ‘So I decided to come to church to find out the answers so that I can at least answer correctly, you know, when my granddaughter’s quizzing me.’” The grandmother has since accepted baptism, though Sveta still wavers on her faith commitment.

It’s moments like this that help Dueck and his wife Natasha keep their eyes on the long view. They strive to plant and nourish self sufficient churches, walk with the spiritually struggling, reach out with hospitality, encourage new leaders, and offer Sunday school and summer camp programs to children. Meanwhile, they patiently keep their eyes peeled for the stories that nourish their own spirits.


 
   

Sidebar: Seeking Christian Pen Pals

When Cliff Dueck, Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Ukraine, told his youth group that he was coming to Canada, he asked them to share something of their lives with the Canadians he would be visiting. Fifteen year-old Katya responded with the following letter (edited).

Greetings
My name is Katya. I am 15 years old, and in grade 10. I go to church and study in Sunday school and I love Jesus very much.

I can’t remember when I first started going to church, but I do remember that as a young child I would occasionally attend the Sunday services held by Christians at the cultural centre in our community. Later on Cliff bought a house and organized a church and I started to come more frequently. I got so used to church that now I can’t live without church. I enjoy being part of the church, because church is a place full of joy, a place where one can find many wonderful friends and there are great songs. We have a lot of church events: Youth Group, Youth Worship Service, Young Women’s Bible Studies, Men’s Groups, and a lot more.

I really love worshiping God in songs and that is why I take voice lessons so that I might learn to sing well. Not too long ago I repented, but I have not yet received Baptism, but I hope to take this step soon. I am very glad that I found God and that I now live with Him. I am very thankful that I can commune with Him in prayer and that I can learn about Him from good people like Cliff and Natasha.

I really like socializing with Christians.

I would like to share a Bible verse with you.

“… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…” (He.10:24) (NASB)

If any of you would like to write me I would be happy to answer you.

Katya

(forward your messages to Katya through , and include your mailing address)